Case Watch: A Mother’s Search for Her Son Leads to Groundbreaking Decision on Disappearances in Mexico

People holding up missing persons posters
Family and friends of missing people call for an end to forced disappearances and abductions in Veracruz, Mexico, on September 7, 2014. © Raul Mendez Velazquez/Sipa/Newscom

In Case Watch, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to our work to advance human rights law around the world.

On December 11, 2013, a 16-year-old from Veracruz, Mexico, was at work in an auto repair shop when a group of civilians and government agents entered the shop and arrested him. They put the boy, Victor, in a van and took him to an undisclosed location. According to the business owner, the only information the agents gave was that Victor had been identified as an accomplice in a robbery.

That was the last time Victor was seen alive.

Victor was not alone. In the five days leading up to his disappearance, similar operations were carried out in nearby neighborhoods to where Victor lived. Among the victims, six other young men have not been seen again.

Since 2013, their families and loved ones have waged a battle against the inaction of the Mexican authorities on their enforced disappearance. In this fight, they have been accompanied by I(dh)eas, a strategic litigation organization that defends human rights, provided them with the specialized legal services they so badly needed.

In Victor’s case, his mother, Perla, spent the past eight years demanding that her son be found, and that those responsible for his disappearance be prosecuted. She embarked on a path that led her from the shady investigative offices of Veracruz to the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation.

On June 16, 2021, her fight culminated in a tremendous victory: the first decision by any nation’s highest court recognizing the mandatory nature of urgent actions issued by the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED). Perla and Victor’s case will now set a precedent for implementing urgent actions for more than 450 cases of disappeared people in Mexico.

The legal and institutional labyrinth to investigate an enforced disappearance in Mexico is immense, to say the least. Perla had to visit four agencies that may have had information on her son’s whereabouts, but first she had to file a complaint—and despite the evident irregularity of the circumstances in which the arrest took place, the complaint was not dismissed immediately because 72 hours had not yet passed since the disappearance. But the first 72 hours are a vital window in any investigation of a missing person, in which more could have been done to find her son.

In the three years following Victor’s disappearance, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation did not make any progress or respond to the demands of the victims. Perla turned to the CED, the body of independent experts which monitors the implementation of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. On February 12, 2016, the CED required the Mexican State to take five urgent actions:

  1. Immediately carry out a comprehensive, serious, exhaustive and impartial investigation
  2. Consider the context of the disappearances and investigate the possible involvement of police officers or other security forces
  3. Ensure the independence of the investigation and collect the necessary forensic evidence and statements from witnesses and family members, as well as guarantee their safety
  4. Fully identify the human remains found in clandestine graves in the state of Veracruz and their possible relationship with the disappeared ones
  5. Inform the CED of all the actions undertaken in the investigation, particularly those aimed to protect the rights of the victims

On May 1, 2017, more than a year after the UN issued its first urgent actions, the CED required Mexico to take eight new urgent actions and demanded that the relatives of the disappeared persons be informed on the status of the investigations. Then, after five more months of inaction, Perla went to the district courts of the State of Veracruz to denounce the inaction of the authorities that resulted in a violation of her human rights and those of her son.

The district judge who presided over the trial determined that the prosecutor in charge of the investigation had violated the victim’s rights, but dismissed the grievances filed against the higher prosecutors, and determined that the urgent actions issued by the CED were not mandatory for the Mexican state, so should just be considered as recommendations.

Persistent as ever for justice, Perla and the I(dh)eas team made the decision to request the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to assume the jurisdiction to try the case. On June 16, 2021, the Supreme Court issued its landmark judgment, finding that the omissions, delays, and negligence of the authorities led to a serious violation of the human rights of Perla and Victor.

Unlike the district judge, the Supreme Court considered that this responsibility does not lie exclusively with the auxiliary prosecutor’s office, but also with the specialized prosecutor’s office and the state attorney general, meaning that the Supreme Court expanded the breadth of who in the Mexican government is accountable for Victor’s forced disappearance and botched investigation.

The court found that the state is obligated to an immediate and diligent search for the victims, and it must prosecute and punish those responsible for a crime that affects both the disappeared and their loved ones, or at least until a resolution is reached.

What is unusual about this case is that the court also devoted a special analysis to the question of whether the UN’s urgent actions should be mandatory for the Mexican government to follow. Mexico ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in 2008, which mandates protections for victims of enforced disappearance and their families; to locate and return their remains; and ensure that victims of enforced disappearance or those directly affected by it have a right to obtain reparation and compensation.

In its analysis, the court found that the ratification of an international treaty supposes the commitment to enforce it. Based on the principle of universal protection of human rights and their enforcement, Mexico accepted the establishment of a mechanism for monitoring and supervising compliance with the treaty, which oversees the CED. Therefore, urgent actions issued by this committee and based on the convention are mandatory at the domestic level.

Perla’s nearly decade long struggle and persistence to find Victor, while incredibly painful, has led to significant legal progress for other families in a country with one of the world’s highest number of enforced disappearances. Now it is time for the Mexican government to do right by these families who have lost so much and follow the UN’s urgent actions.

I(dh)eas is a grantee of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

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